Film / TV

watching ‘watchmen,’ thinking about america

November 14, 2019
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Writing about HBO’s Watchmen is kind of a fool’s mission that I wouldn’t even bother with, if the show didn’t inspire in me some deeper thoughts about race in modern America. The series is an extension of what might be the greatest comic book of all time — created by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, and published in 1986-87 — which is part of what makes this show’s scope so massive. 

This Watchmen exists in an alternate universe where the police wear masks to hide their identity from the criminals and masked super-heroism is outlawed. Here, a trillionaire named Lady Trieu is the globe’s most powerful person, Vietnam is part of the United States and the actor Robert Redford has been President for 28 years (after Nixon, who directly preceded him, abolished term limits). Most importantly for the purposes of this narrative, Redford passed the “Victims of Racial Violence Act,” which provides a form of reparations — a lifetime tax exemption — to victims of racial injustice and their descendants. I don’t usually get into alternate history fiction but I have a soft spot for Watchmen because race is at the heart of the show’s mythology: its opening scene is 1921’s notorious Black Wall Street Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when mobs of white people attacked the wealthiest Black community in America, killing hundreds and damaging millions of dollars of property in what has been called the single worst incident of racial violence in the nation’s history.

Watchmen is so complex, it merits a book length dissertation — but let me drill down into the two ideas the show evokes for me. 

Regina King in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ (photo: Mark Hill/HBO)

First off, Regina King’s Angela Abar aka Sister Night, is the baddest Black female TV-show lead of all time. She’s a hard-as-nails police officer living in a moment when being an officer is so dangerous that cops cover their faces in public to avoid being tracked down by their enemies. In this climate, cops tend to be alpha male cowboys, yet even here she stands apart as tough. In episode one she rolls into a racist-filled trailer park by herself with her black leather coat flaring dramatically behind her, grabs a white supremacist by the neck like a wayward child and throws him in the trunk of her car. When the other cops fail at his interrogation, she shoves him in a little room, beats him down for a minute, and makes him sing like a canary. Angela’s strut is badass; her attitude steely; her car is a black, American muscle car with hard edges; and she leads a group of tough men. But Angela also has layers: she’s a sweet, patient mother, a loving wife and a good friend who you’d enjoy having beers with, someone who can both protect the world and make it worth living in. Angela’s only real competition for the baddest sister on TV is Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, the brilliant crisis manager on Scandal, but I give Angela the slight nod because even though Olivia can talk her way through any geopolitical imaginable, Angela is out here beating down white supremacy for real. (Both characters are also indicative of the fact that this is the greatest period in Black TV history.)

The second major point that strikes me about Watchmen is its clarity about the past’s impact on the present. Watchmen talks a lot about genealogy and familial connections — a video version of Skip Gates helps Angela navigate her search for her relatives and a link to the survivors of the Black Wall Street Massacre. Watchmen embodies the notion that the past has never passed, that it’s a present part of us. We live in a world where many white people want to argue that they had nothing to do with slavery so why should they feel responsible for it, but things are far more complex. The past continues to have a grip on us. As one recent study showed, counties with the highest concentration of enslaved Blacks in the 1860s are more likely to be conservative and Republican, suffused with current racial resentment. People whose ancestors owned many slaves are still fighting to maintain the supremacy their forebears were accustomed to. Or, as an essay about the study said, “The prevalence of slavery, coupled with the shock of its removal, created strong incentives for [the descendants of slave-owning] whites to try to preserve both their political and economic power by promoting racially targeted violence, anti-black norms, and, to the extent legally possible, racist institutions.” 

There’s a direct connection between the racism of the deep past and the way people function today, as if it lives in the soil. And the desire to maintain the supremacy of whiteness is at the core of Trumpism. It comes at a time when many white people are afraid of racial demographics that are moving against them, turning whites into a racial minority. Trump was, for many, a chance to reassert their historical dominance, to take a stand against that change — and if you understand that, then you see how, to some white people, 2020 could feel like a civil war. As if whiteness is under siege, in need of protection. The FBI anticipates a surge in hate crimes during the Presidential race.  

Tim Blake Nelson and Regina King in HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ (photo: Mark Hill/HBO)

Watchmen presents visions of that white racial resentment coalescing into a violent, lawless cavalry at war with both Black people and the white people they call race traitors. They are a gang that attacks police in an effort to reassert white dominance. I cannot help but see something like that happening on the horizon in real America — either during the campaign, as Trump urges his people to assert their white privilege, or perhaps after the campaign, once he loses, his supporters’ fear escalates and they strike out to reassert the dominance they feel slipping away. And if hate crimes rise, what are we going to do? How many Charlottesvilles, how many Proud Boys, how many Richard Spencers do we allow before we say no more? At what point might it become necessary for Black people to defend ourselves the way the fictional Angela defends us? 

I see, one day, a world where hate crimes continue to spiral, and a new organization rises up, one that makes Black Lives Matter look pacificist. I can imagine the need for a sort of Black Antifa, one that moves in the shadows and fights back against white supremacist domestic terrorists, and tries to make the price of joining those groups too high. Because the goal is not peace, it’s justice. The problem is not violence, it’s injustice. Violence intended to create justice is not immoral — it has value to society. And it could become an imperative. Trumpism predates Trump. It’s a cancer that goes all the way back to slavery, a tumor in the American soul that has been nurtured by the Republican party over the past five decades, and it’s not going to just fade away once its current leader is defeated. If American authorities are not going to help us — and so often it seems like the police stand by when white supremacists attack — then we might need to do some of these things for ourselves. At least that’s what Watchmen makes me think about.